Playing With Heart

Grand Rounds

A transplant serves up a new beginning.

By Sarah Achenbach

Mati Luik playing tennis with Carolina Luik.
All photos unless noted: Owen Donovan, courtesy of NewYork-Presbyterian

Photo above: Mati Luik, a formerly nationally ranked tennis player, volleys with his daughter, Carolina. Video below: Courtesy of NewYork-Presbyterian. Inset photos below: Carolina examines her dad post-surgery (photo by Veronica Luik); Family portrait: Veronica, Carolina and Mati Luik.

Born with a congenital heart defect known as transposition of the great arteries, Mati Luik never let his condition stop him. The defect switches or “transposes” at birth the heart’s two main arteries, the typically high-pressure left ventricle and low-pressure right ventricle, restricting blood flow to the rest of the body.

After childhood surgery and through his 20s, he was quite active. “My normal was just the normal I knew,” recalls Luik, 43, who became a nationally ranked tennis player.

Carolina Luik pointing to Mati Luik’s chest.On Feb. 1, Luik’s new normal became a new heart. He is the first to receive a donor heart at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center since its new heart transplant program opened early this year.

The program is an expansion of NewYork-Presbyterian’s renowned heart transplant program, which was previously based only at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus.

In his early 30s, Luik’s condition worsened. He was developing shortness of breath, and it was harder to be active. “Unfortunately, Mati began to have more medical problems. A lot of patients, including those with transposition, end up needing additional [interventions] as adults,” says interventional and adult congenital cardiologist Dr. Harsimran Singh, who oversaw Luik’s care.

Dr. Berhane Worku and Dr. Yoshifumi Naka performing Mati Luik’s heart transplant.In 2015, Luik underwent valve replacement surgery and worked his way back to the courts, playing in a league for fun, with Dr. Singh’s approval. A year later, Luik needed to have a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted, which addressed episodes of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that he experienced on the tennis court.

But after Luik was hospitalized several times last fall, Dr. Singh and Luik’s cardiologist, Dr. Maria Karas, put him on the transplant list at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia.

“We didn’t want him to wait if a heart became available,” recalls Dr. Karas, “but Mati was very much in favor of being the first patient” at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.

Luik also had full faith in Dr. David Majure, who has deep experience building heart transplant programs. “The intensity was impressive,” Dr. Majure says of the leadup to the new program’s launch.

Dr. Berhane Worku and Dr. Yoshifumi Naka performing Mati Luik’s heart transplant.
Photo: Dr. David Majure

Photo above: New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s new heart transplant program opened in early 2023. 

For over a year, everyone from patient intake staff to ICU units collaborated on protocols and procedures. Dr. Yoshifumi Naka, who ultimately performed Luik’s transplant, conducted mock OR runs with every step dissected.

While the hospital prepped, Luik and his wife Veronica waited at home, bags packed, for the call that a heart was available. The call came on Jan. 31. 

Luik’s new heart marked a new beginning in cardiology care and technological innovation at Weill Cornell Medicine. Part of his pride in being the first heart transplant patient at the newly expanded program is helping to shape the future for other cardiac patients.

“We have more options to treat heart failure than ever before, and by growing our services, we can help more people get the care they need where and when they need it,” says Dr. Majure. 

Like his favorite tennis player, Andre Agassi, Luik is known for his determination. Just before surgery, he told Dr. Naka that he was going to walk the next day, something typically unheard of.

But the next afternoon, Dr. Naka was delighted to see Luik leading a slow parade of nurses in the ICU hallway. “I have never seen a transplant patient walk the next day,” he says. Today, Luik is back to hitting a few tennis balls, taking hikes with his family and getting hugs from the medical team at follow-up appointments. 

For other patients, the program’s launch has broadened access to the very best comprehensive cardiac care and transplant services. “We’re committed to delivering exceptional care for heart failure patients, including through LVAD devices (heart pumps) and other innovative treatments, and we look forward to expanding our services throughout the region,” Dr. Naka says.

Thrilled with Luik’s outcome, Dr. Majure keeps focused on the future. “For Mati and for all our transplant patients, our job is to keep them healthy for years to come with the best quality of life they possibly can have.”

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